In recent years, the ubiquity of cell phone cameras has revealed how frequently police officers in the United States kill people who are unarmed and/or running away, struggling to breathe, begging for mercy. Statistical analysis shows that black men are disproportionately targeted, no matter the quality of the neighborhood. Video clips, street rallies, and national anthem protests have brought nationwide attention to this issue—only issue is the wrong word. Non-defensive police homicides are a horror, and attention to horror is not enough. We need solutions.
Many residents, especially outside of wealthy communities, have ambivalent attitudes toward police departments. They want cops to protect them from violent crime, yet fear and resent police harassment. What can concerned citizens do? Protests can raise awareness and publicize demands for police accountability. With sufficient public pressure, elected officials might promote departmental reforms. But which reforms are most promising? How can insular police culture be changed?
Outfitting street cops with body cameras—the current “fix”—doesn’t address prosecutor-police affinity, cop-friendly judges and jurors, and the racist assumptions found throughout the judicial system that, collectively, protect dangerous cops, even those caught on tape. Compulsory body cameras may seem a mild demand, yet can still be politically problematic, as seen recently in Portland, Oregon. In negotiating a new contract with the police union, the mayor and city council agreed to limitations on use of body-camera footage for oversight. Then, directed by the mayor, police violently forced members of a group called Don’t Shoot Portland out of city hall rather than allow them to comment.
Is there a better approach than pressuring elected officials to negotiate superficial reforms with police unions? Productive dialogue with police chiefs and successful persuasion of mayors and city council members, while necessary, is insufficient to transform the racial tensions, community divisions, and militarized mindsets that contribute to savagery in uniform. Concerned citizens should consider creating alternative models of community protection.
Winnipeg, Manitoba, is home to the largest urban population of Indigenous people in Canada, and many live in depressed North End neighborhoods. Median household income in the North End is significantly lower than for Winnipeg in general. Crime rates are relatively high. The Red River and an enormous rail yard separate the North End from the rest of the city, making it sometimes seem a world unto itself.
When James Favel, a trucker and former bouncer, bought his North End home, in 2009, he recalls, “There was a crack dealer across the street, a john who lived next to the crack dealer, and prostitution on the corner of the street.” In 2014, after the murder of a 15-year-old Indigenous girl named Tina Fontaine, Favel decided that he could either sit home watching television or do something to protect his community. “The callous way her body was discarded in the Red River and the complete lack of respect,” Favel said, “that was the last straw for me.”
The following year, he and a few other North End residents reintroduced the Bear Clan Patrol, a community safety group previously active in the early 1990s. They began with a handful of volunteers walking the streets on weekend evenings, handing out condoms, picking up used needles, checking alleys and under bridges for people in distress. “Non-policing issues,” Favel calls them. The group’s mandate, he said, is “to protect the women and children, the elderly, and the vulnerable members of our community.” They are particularly concerned about “johns”—men who drive into the North End looking to exploit young women. The volunteers jot down license plate numbers to give to the police and try to discourage girls from turning to prostitution.
The Bear Clan Patrol comes out of traditional governance systems in the region. Different clans had different roles, and the Bear Clan was responsible for security and medicine. Clan members would make sure the elderly had firewood and the young were fed. They patrolled the village, kept the bears and wolves out. While Favel is the public face of the current Bear Clan Patrol, he emphasizes the leadership role of Indigenous women on the governing council.
Indigenous values also hold that everyone is part of the community and deserves safety and support, not just long-time residents or “model” citizens, not just homeowners. For the current Bear Clan Patrol, this means expanding their activities as they discover more community members in need. The volunteers assist vulnerable people—homeless, suicidal, intoxicated—and withhold judgment. They hand out food and use social media to organize donation drives of clothing and furniture. They try to resolve conflicts before police and child welfare services have reason to intervene.
At first, Favel recalls, “people thought we were nuts and they kind of stayed away from us.” But the volunteers in fluorescent safety vests kept talking to community members, building connections, making it clear they were out to help, not intimidate or punish. Patrol members carry flashlights and walkie-talkies, but no weapons. They don’t arrest people, don’t enter homes uninvited. They don’t expand their patrols into neighborhoods until they have established relationships with residents and received an invitation. Their method is nonviolence. Their spirit is compassion. As word got out, more volunteers joined the patrols, and people on the street now greet them with smiles, gratitude, and congratulations.
A major turning point for the Bear Clan Patrol came in February, 2016, when they quietly joined the search for Cooper Nemeth, a popular teenager who had disappeared from a party and later was found murdered. Though Nemeth lived on the other side of the Red River and was not Indigenous, Bear Clan volunteers put in many hours looking for him, then hosted a healing ceremony for the family and hundreds of mourners. “With the Bear Clan, the feeling is utter and complete gratefulness,” Brent Nemeth said. “They’re doing their own thing and out of nowhere they come and help my son, help find my son.”
Like many others, Mr. Nemeth noted how the Bear Clan Patrol was changing Winnipeg race relations. “Emotionally, it was a tipping point for me. It’s hard to explain. Ultimately, the Bear Clan, they are the one breaking down borders in this city.” Favel agrees, despite his sadness over several missing persons searches. “What’s going on now is turning the standard negative stereotypes of Indigenous people in Winnipeg on its head. There’s been nothing but negativity coming out of the North End for the last…forever. And to have that change now is fantastic. We’re getting positive messages out nationally and potentially worldwide.” The Bear Clan Patrol has a policy manual which they share when other communities ask for advice. Requests have come from across Canada, and similar patrol groups have emerged in at least four other cities. Please visit www.facebook.com/BearClanPatrol/.
The most recent news from the Bear Clan Patrol is a partnership with Winnipeg police. Relations had been awkward, as the police are generally skeptical of untrained community patrols, and Bear Clan volunteers were hesitant to side with police against North End residents, including gang members. But police officers have begun participating in the evening patrols for mutual benefit. “Maybe were legitimize each other a little bit,” Favel suggested. Police authority is particularly important for addressing sex traffickers. “For our continued success, we require them. Bottom line, if we have them working with us instead of against us, we’re way ahead.” Constable Jeff Boehm agreed, “Joining in a collaborative effort with them only enhances our visibility.”
The Bear Clan Patrol is, in a word, Gandhian. Mohandas Gandhi is probably best known for leading political campaigns of mass civil disobedience and noncooperation intended to end British colonial rule over India. However, he placed greater value on his “Constructive Programme”: cultivating nonviolent, self-sufficient, inclusive, non-exploitative communities, or ashrams, as an alternative to colonial dependency. He hoped the British colonists would see the superiority of what he considered “Indian civilization” and join it.
The Bear Clan Patrol fits with the “Constructive Programme.” Patrol volunteers are offering an alternative model of community protection beyond the auspices of the imperial (Canadian) state. For participants, this independence and creativity is empowering (though funding is always a concern). Within the degrading context of colonialism, the commitment to Indigenous values and ways is therapeutic, as it contributes to community pride and individual self-worth.
The adherence to nonviolence is critical. Violence, even when state-authorized, even when seemingly legitimate, creates fear and resentment, builds barriers, leads to more violence. Nonjudgmental care-giving (a pretty good definition of nonviolence), particularly to strangers, does the opposite. Nonviolence rehumanizes the dehumanized. To be fully human means to recognize the humanity of all other humans. Through their compassion, patrol members are telling vulnerable community members, “You matter.” Bear Clan participation in missing persons searches is transforming the dehumanizing and dehumanized attitudes that other Winnipeg residents may hold toward North End residents and Indigenous people in general.
Bear Clan cooperation with the police has the potential to reduce tensions between officers and community members. Walking with Bear Clan care-givers, rather than cruising by in a car, officers will likely learn to see vulnerable, troubled individuals less as a danger or problem, more as people in need. Community members will likely feel less threatened by officers who are accompanied by Bear Clan volunteers. In this sense, the Bear Clan Patrol serves as intermediary and buffer, witness and unarmed accompaniment. This is possible because the Bear Clan first gained the trust of the community and the respect of the police. “We’re acting as a liaison between the community and the officers here,” Favel explained. “We’re trying to make everybody’s life a little bit easier, make sure everybody gets along a little better.”
Can nonviolent community patrols work the same way in large, racially-divided U.S. cities? What about in suburban sprawl? Policing, rates of gun violence, social services, and racial tensions in the United States are not the same as in Canada. Still, the example of the Indigenous, working-class activists in the Bear Clan Patrol is instructive. The presence of nonviolence practitioners, the rehumanizing power of compassion, can change community dynamics in positive and unexpected ways.
However, the greater the level of dehumanization, the greater the nonviolent sacrifice required to rehumanize. In communities with high rates of violence—assaults, armed robberies, police homicides, gang warfare—patrol volunteers will require special training in nonviolent communication, intervention, and interposition. At times, they may need the courage and commitment to stand between hostile adversaries. Perhaps a peace brigade, or shanti sena, is called for. Yes, a radical idea—in the best sense of the word—but violent horror won’t be eliminated without new (old) ways of thinking, without nonviolent sacrifice. Simply put, to reduce violent policing, start nonviolent policing.
The Bear Clan Patrol example also hints at the importance of reincorporating police officers into the communities they patrol. Better training and body cameras are not enough. Officers who live where they work, know the people they are expected to serve, and care about the well-being of the community are less susceptible to an “us versus them” mentality. Former Baltimore street cop Michael Wood Jr. says, “I think it starts with empathy. Police officers aren’t warriors. They aren’t soldiers. I don’t even like the mentality that we’re ‘enforcing the laws.’ Maybe a term like ‘protectors.’” But where the police force acts as a foreign, occupying army, reincorporation will take time. Perhaps a nonviolent community patrol can lead the way.
If nothing else, take this from the story of James Favel and the Bear Clan Patrol. If you want to change your world for the better, identify a local problem, find like-minded citizens, and develop nonviolent solutions. You may fail. You may succeed and be satisfied. You may start a movement. Create a better model, and see who joins you.
Timothy Braatz is a playwright, novelist, and professor of history and nonviolence at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California (www.saddleback.edu/tbraatz). His most recent nonfiction book is Peace Lessons.